Lake Simons grew up at her parents’ Hip Pocket Theatre and so there was no question that she would become a theater artist driven by innovation and experimentation.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she presented several of her own works at Johnny and Diane Simons’ theater, but it wasn’t until 2003 that she made her mark as a major talent with her puppet take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Now 10 years later, after having been through various incarnations in New York and at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the show is back at the place where it began.
Hip Pocket might have a new and bigger home, and the show has been scaled back in some areas — there’s only one musician instead of four, for instance — but Simons’ penchant for simple, visual storytelling with physical theater techniques has grown both clearer and more vibrant.
Directed by Simons (who doesn’t perform this time), a team of 12 retells the major threads and poetry of Carroll’s endearing classic. That includes Lake’s longtime collaborator John Dyer, who composed the original music the first time and returns to play it and supply sound effects (mostly done with his voice) as well as narration through song. For the most part, the only other performer we hear is Elysia Worcester as Alice, who begins and ends the show reading directly from Carroll’s book, and occasionally speaks Alice’s lines.
In between those passages, the action comes to life with the help of 10 performers who puppeteer characters and objects, and who contribute to techniques that aren’t necessarily inventive, but always seem fresh, such as when Alice falls down the rabbit hole. If there’s a major distinction between this version and the one a decade ago, it’s that Simons has more fun with the book’s distortion of size and space. Alice doesn’t simply get bigger or smaller (the smaller version is often represented with a puppet doppelganger of Worcester), it’s that the world around her changes in surprising and amusing ways.
For instance, as she grows in the house in one of the Cheshire Cat scenes, the walls and roof dance around her and re-form with her arms spilling out of the windows. In the Tea Party scene, the characters and objects pop out from under the tablecloth, via slits in the fabric. Several of the poetry passages and stories, such as You Are Old, Father William, the Lobster Quadrille scene, and the Pigeon and serpentine-neck Alice scene, are done with shadow puppetry as some performers hold the frame for the action and others manipulate the delicate cut-outs behind it, and still another holds the light that makes shadow puppetry possible.
The bigger hand-held and rod puppets, including the Mock Turtle, Gryphon, March Hare, Duchess and Frog Footman, are gorgeously crafted. In many cases, they use bunraku-style techniques with multiple puppeteers even when the puppet is small enough that one object-manipulator would have been enough. That would have been too easy; it’s more whimsical when one puppeteer is holding the Dormouse’s body and another is moving its little legs.
One of the motifs Dyer returns to is the line “wonder what longitude I’m at?” to note a scene transition or the next move in Alice’s choose-her-own-adventure story. There are moments of such time-and-space distortion that you might wonder the same thing, until you chalk it up to just another magical experience at Hip Pocket. We can’t wait to have a similar experience at HPT’s next show, which is Lake Simons’ take on another magical tale, Shakespeare’s The Tempest.